Refuting Microsoft's claim of Surface display superiority

Microsoft is telling customers that its new tablet's display is sharper than the iPad 3. "Not so fast" says an internationally recognized research scientist specializing in display technology.

Refuting Microsoft's claim that Surface display is better than the iPad's - Jason O'Grady

Microsoft recently implied (via CNET) that the display in its Surface tablet is better than the display in the iPad 3 -- despite the fact that Surface for Windows RT has a resolution of 1366 x 768 (148 PPI) compared to the iPad's 2048 x 1536 (264 PPI).

Steven Bathiche, director of research for Microsoft's Applied Sciences group, recently told a Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) audience that "Microsoft has the best pixel rendering technology in the industry" (ClearType 1.0 and 2.0) and that (while unofficial) "our current ClearType measurements on the amount of light reflected off the screen [of the Surface RT] is around 5.5%-6.2%, the new iPad has a measurement of 9.9% mirror reflections)."

Bathiche said that "screen resolution is one component of perceived detail. The true measure of resolvability of a screen called Modulation Transfer Function (MTF), not Pixels." He goes on to say that "without good contrast, resolution decreases."

Dr. Raymond Soneira, President of DisplayMate Technologies (who's Mirror Reflections readings are quoted by the Microsoft engineers in the AMA) takes issue with Microsoft's claim of screen superiority over the vaunted iPad 3.

Since the Surface isn't shipping until October 26 and not available for a true comparison Soneira compared the iPad 2 and 3 to an Asus Netbook with a 1366 x 768, 130 PPI display that's "essentially identical" to the Surface (the ASUS Eee PC 1201N Seashell) because it uses the same Microsoft Sub-Pixel Rendering believed to be used in the Surface.

For his test Soneira loaded the New York Times website in Safari on all three displays and compared them side-by-side (all three displays have the same 5.9-inch screen height in landscape mode, so it was a very fair comparison). He concluded that "The Windows ClearType 768p display on the Asus Netbook was significantly sharper than the iPad 2 768p display but also significantly less sharp than the new iPad 3 1536p display."

While far from conclusive, Soneira's test casts serious doubt on Microsoft's claim of display superiority over the iPad. To be fair, he notes that it's possible that the Microsoft Surface RT will perform better than the Asus Netbook he tested, but calls it "very unlikely" that the Surface will be visually sharper than the iPad 3.

On the other hand Soneira says that it's "quite possible" that the Surface with Windows Pro (with 1920 x 1080 and 208 PPI) will be "comparable in sharpness" to the iPad 3's 2048 x 1536, 264 PPI panel, but since it won't be shipping until 90 days after the Surface RT, we'll likely have to wait until CES 2013 in January to find out definitively.

I can't wait until October 26 (and beyond) when we can compare the actual displays in the new crop of Windows tablets, including the displays that come on Windows tablets from other manufacturers who might ship higher quality displays than Microsoft does in the Surface.

Competition is a good thing, my friend.